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Germs travel pretty far (and fast) when you sneeze or cough. Here’s how you can stay germ-free.

If you forget to cover your mouth or nose during just one sneeze or a little cough, it’s no big deal…right? That might be what you tell yourself when your child sneezes right in your face, or when someone standing behind you in the checkout line coughs and doesn’t cover their mouth.

Unfortunately, the germs that fly out of your nose or mouth and travel much farther than you might think.

"Sneeze and cough germs spread far and fast," says Dr. Stephanie Kelleher, a Geisinger family physician. "These tiny droplets float through the air and you can get a cold, the flu or another illness when you come into contact with them."

A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted that germs from one sneeze could travel from 19 to 26 feet. What’s also unfortunate is how fast these germs travel: A sneeze can move 100 miles per hour, which makes getting away from someone when they sneeze close to impossible.

Here are a few ways to help you stay germ-free.

Wash your hands

"The most important way to prevent the spread of germs it by washing your hands," says Dr. Kelleher. "This tried-and-true technique is still the best way."
To wash your hands properly, use warm water and soap. Lather for 20 seconds—roughly the amount of time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song. If soap and water aren’t available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. However, know that hand sanitizer does not kill all germs.

Cover your mouth and nose

When you feel that familiar tingling sensation in your nose or a tickle in the back of your throat before a cough, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue, then throw that tissue away. 

If a tissue isn’t available, cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow. This will prevent some germs from spreading and help keep your hands clean.

"We used to cover our nose and mouth with our hands, but that’s not doing much to stop germs from spreading, unless you immediately wash them as soon as you cough or sneeze," says Dr. Kelleher. "Practice this new method if you can’t grab a tissue quickly — and teach your kids, too."

Don’t touch your face, eyes or mouth

Many people touch their faces, rub their eyes or touch their mouths throughout the day without even knowing it. But if there are germs on your hands and you touch these parts of your face, you could get sick.

Instead, make a mental note to stop touching your face, eyes and mouth if you’re not feeling well. Washing your hands also reduces the likelihood that you’ll spread germs this way.

Get a flu shot

A flu shot can prevent you from getting sick. It takes about two weeks to become effective, so getting your flu shot earlier in flu season is better.

Stay home when you’re sick

Keep your distance if you’re not feeling well. Remember that sneeze and cough germs travel far, so if you’re doing a lot of either, stay at home until you are well. Keeping your distance from family members while you’re at home can also help stop the spread of germs.

"Getting a bit of a cold or the flu might not be an issue for you, but you should be mindful of the people around you," says Dr. Kelleher. "If someone has a weakened immune system, a cold or the flu can make them much sicker than most people."

Next steps:

Learn more about primary care at Geisinger
Here’s how to get good nutrition when you’re sick
Deep cleaning your home after being sick

 
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